Australia’s Dingoes are considered one of the stronger teams competing at Worlds this year in Sakai, Japan. Though there is plenty of talent, Ultimate is still growing in Australia and has a vastly different landscape from the US. In this interview we chat with Jonno Holmes, seasoned Aussie Ultimate/Dingoes veteran and captain of this year’s Dingoes, as well as Mark Evans, a Sydney local who, at 22, is the youngest player on the Australian men’s Worlds team. We discuss in depth the differences between Ultimate in Australia and the US, as well as what preparations the Dingoes have been making to take on the top competition at Worlds.
Skyd Magazine: Please start by introducing yourself. Who are you? How did you get involved with Ultimate? What’s your background with the sport?
Jonno Holmes: I currently play for the Canberra club Fyshwick United and I’m the captain of the Dingoes (Australian men’s team) who will be competing at the 2012 World Championships in Japan.
I was first introduced to ultimate in 1998 at Newcastle University (Australia) by Wade Demmer, an American exchange student from Iowa State University. My very first interaction was walking past Demmer’s dorm room, seeing a disc on his floor and saying to him “cool, a Frisbee!” his reply was “oh, you play ultimate?” and I said “what the …. is ultimate?” We spent the next two hours scuffing the hell out of his (brand new) disc in the college carpark. Demmer later taught a group of us how to play ultimate and we formed the first university club at Newcastle.
I played my first Australian National Championship in 2001 and have played in all Nationals since then. At an international representative level I have been part of the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Dingoes teams as well as the 2005 and 2009 Crocs (Australian World Games team).
Mark Evans: I’m a Sydney-based Ultimate player studying Communications (PR/Marketing) and at 22 years old, I’m the youngest player on the Australian Men’s team for Worlds 2012. From what I can remember it all started when a friend brought a Coke promotional Frisbee to school one day, we Googled the game we could play with a Frisbee, got into it, found a local league and it all spiralled out of control from there. I have been playing for roughly 4 years.
I was cut from the U19 team (Thunder) in ’08, got pissed off, trained hard and made the top Australian Club, Colony, that went to WUCC2010, where we came 6th placing above Doublewide and every other country except Japan and US. Directly following that I played on the Australian U23 team (Goannas) in Florence, Italy.
The Aus Men’s team qualification started in early 2011, I put my name down thinking that I didn’t really have a chance to make the team but that I’d train hard anyway. As each training camp went by and cuts were made, my chances improved, people started saying positive things about my game and then I found myself on the team. It didn’t really register with me for a while.
I like Ultimate for the people, the travel, for my team-mates, my Bros and because it pushes me.
Back then there was very little Ultimate Frisbee in schools in Sydney, so it was rare for people to start before university. There is more junior development now, but it is still rare to find schools that actively participate in the sport.
What is it like learning to play Ultimate in Australia (as compared to the US for example)? Were there lots of learning opportunities of did you have to figure out a lot yourself?
Mark: Learning to play Ultimate in Australia is very different and probably more difficult. While in the US there are teachers and coaches that can show you correct forehand and backhand form, we don’t have this. New players are often shown the basics and left to fend for themselves. This often leads to bad habits and technique that have to be fixed up later in life. I was lucky enough to be taught how to throw by the ‘08 Junior’s captain and my mate, Phil White, who had a killer flick, so my throws are pretty good these days. There should probably be a more laid out and exact method of teaching someone to throw put in place, this is made difficult by the fact that Ultimate is still not a science, which is half the fun anyway!
Jonno: In the early days I was completely self taught. I played in bare feet at every practice and at several tournaments. We were throwing split finger forehands, or even thumber-forehands. If you could throw a hammer you pretty much had it made with the ladies. “Unstructured” would be a good way to describe early tactics I was introduced to. Since that time I have been exposed to the coaching of some very experienced players in a number of different club or representative teams. Players and coaches such as Jonathan Potts, David O’Brien, Chris Warris, Pete Hemphill and Tom Rogacki are people who have had a big role in my development as a player.
What is Ultimate in Australia like in general? Based on your experiences, extrapolate a bit on the Uni, league and club scenes. What’s great about it? What needs more development? What’s challenging?
Jonno: I’ve only played ultimate in Australia, so it is difficult to compare between countries at a club or league level. But Australian ultimate is a relatively small community (compared to say the US) and is by nature very social. There are excellent opportunities to play in more relaxed social or hat style tournaments where you meet and mix with a great range of players and personalities. Ultimate is well established in the Australian University scene (getting accepted into the Australian University Games calendar in 2002). At a high school level there is a massive potential for growth, and this is an area that development is really focusing. At an international level Australian teams in almost every division have performed extremely well demonstrating at the elite level the athletes in Australia can match it with the best in the world.
Mark: Ultimate in Australia is still a developing sport that no-one has really heard about it. Last year in August, as part of the men’s team qualification I traveled to ECC with the team. Myself and a couple of team mates were chatting on a bus, when our accents were over-heard by a curious passenger, who asked us if we were from England and what we were doing during our travels around the States. We replied saying that we were in fact Australian and (hesitantly) that we were…playing…an Ultimate Frisbee Tournament. Expecting the usual questions about canine participation and beaches we were a bit taken aback when she calmly nodded saying that one of her nephews played. The whole bus then joined in the conversation, which in itself never happens in Australia.
College Ultimate is a big deal in states and teams will train for months in order to even try to qualify for nationals, whereas here it is very much still social ultimate. Our equivalent of College Nationals is something called University games, a week in summer where all sports teams from every university in Australia come to the Gold Coast (like Vegas but on the beach) and play sport in the day and get wasted at night, for 5 days. It doesn’t exactly produce the highest level of university Ultimate but who’s complaining?
There are quite a large number of social level players relative to the small number, 500ish, elite players in Australia. There is a distinct lack of drive to progress in the sport and become better more athletic high-level players. Ultimate starts mostly at University, naturally players should then progress to the club scene, but there is a huge drop off here, where players are unwilling to commit their time to becoming better and it results in a really small elite level.
High-level play is helped even less by the distances between cities and major playing hubs. Our state, NSW, is the size of France, with the other competitive teams 2-4 hours away. We are lucky we have other decent teams in our state, most of the other states in Australia only have the one good team and have to fly in order to get any decent games. I played in England just after I finished school, and it was so much easier for teams there just because of their proximity to one another. This applies to Australia in terms of international competition as well. Australia is so isolated from the rest of the Ultimate world, we train hard in amongst ourselves but international competitions that we can attend are few and far between.
What is the culture of Ultimate in Australia like? What sorts of people gravitate to the sport? What are some of the values present in the Australia Ultimate community?
Mark: The culture of Australian Ultimate is what really sets it apart from other countries played in. As I mentioned before, the high-level community is really tight-knit. While there might be rivalries between certain teams, most people will still be friends and come together at the post-tournament party as mates. I’m not sure if this happens in the States too but the closeness of the ultimate community can work against you, for instance, when two well-known players get together at a drunken after-party the entire country will know about it. I don’t know about the US but to quote a friend of mine “They say saliva is the glue that holds mixed teams together”, and this certainly holds true in Australia.
Jonno: As in other countries, in Australia people who play ultimate are usually attracted to the sport because of the athletic challenge, the fast free-flowing nature of the game and the social aspects. Being self-referreed (there are no observers used in any level of ultimate in Australia) adds an additional aspect, as players a well known for playing hard competitive ultimate in the context of a self refereed sport. Australian representative teams are well renowned for their level of spirit at international tournaments winning the SOTG award at Club Championships (eg King Brown), World Championships (several Junior teams and Barramundis in 2004) and World Game competitions (Crocs at both 2005 and 2009).
How has Australian Ultimate changed since you’ve started playing?
Jonno: There have been a number of significant changes since I began playing. The level of competition between Clubs at Australian Nationals has increased markedly over that time. Aspects such as pre-season training, strength and conditioning programs, even coaching at the Club level were not particularly common when I first started playing. Now they are standard fare. At a junior level there has been a big move to get school age children involved in ultimate. There is still plenty of potential for this to grow and it will be important for the growth of the game in Australia to introduce the sport to players at a younger age. When I first started, the majority of players came through the university system or leagues in big cities like Sydney or Melbourne, now there are many more players who began at younger ages through school development programs or school based tournaments.
Mark: The game has become more physical, which is a positive step forward in my opinion.
In some email discussions Mark has made the bold statement that Australian heckling is more intense than American. Is this really the case?
Jonno: Mark likes to make bold statements be they for ultimate magazines or as “encouragement” from the sideline during tournaments. I think his bold statements can out-heckle most of the standard hecklers out there. Tim Lavis, after playing a club season in 2011 with Truckstop came back to Australia with a few choice new heckles from the US.
I don’t necessarily think the heckling is more intense in Australia, just different. For example, if I was to call you a “sozzled bogan derro who couldn’t chuck a meat-pie over the dunny out back” you probably wouldn’t have a great understanding of the linguistic beauty of the sentence, but you might figure out that I wasn’t so impressed with that scoober of yours that just got intercepted.
Mark: This is definitely true. All the Americans that have come here and played a tournament have been shocked at the rude, crude and hurtful nature of our heckling. We are also generally more liberal with our swear words, which I guess ads to the intensity. I once heckled a guy (my mate Maple) so hard that he sprinted off the field mid-point and tried to jump on me, I moved out of the way and he landed on some bags, tore some ligaments in his ankle and was in crutches for a couple of months! Such is the power of a good heckle.
At WUCC2010, my mates and I were watching an English men’s team, who had some players we knew, play a German team who had hosted us in our pre-tour. There were a couple of English girls supporting from the sideline who asked us earnestly why we were saying these hurtful and mean things, and whether we didn’t like the teams playing. We explained to them that in Australia calling someone rude names or saying hurtful things in a joking manner is a sign of affection. They were not impressed.
What does the Club landscape look like in Australia in general? Who are the stronger teams? Who are the dynasties?
Jonno: Traditionally, the strong centres of Club ultimate have come out of Sydney and Melbourne. In 2010 Newcastle based club “I-Beam” became the first team based outside of Sydney or Melbourne to win the National Championship.
Mark: The major Ultimate club hubs are Sydney and Melbourne, but there are other great teams scattered around the country. At any one time there are usually only 8 or so good men’s teams and the power of these teams shift as good players leave or move around the country. I am biased but I think most would agree that Colony is the dominant club in Australia. We split evenly last nationals and finished 1st and 3rd. Though I have to give props to Heads of State who started as a youth team in Victoria 5 or so years ago and are now a dominant power in the southern region and Australia, this might be their year if they don’t implode.
Let’s talk Worlds. Tell us about the Aussie men’s team. What has the process been like for putting this team together? Who is the team made up of?
Jonno: Unlike the US, the Dingoes are made up of hand selected players, rather than the team that wins Nationals. This is the third Worlds team I have been part of and each one has been a continuation and advancement on the previous campaign. This time round the leadership has been augmented with a head coach, Peter Hemphill, and assistant coach, Chris Stephens, which is the first time we have had a full contingent of non-playing coaches for the Dingoes. Planning for this Worlds began in November 2010 and it has been an extended period of selection and training which has included sending a squad “Malaki” to ECC in August 2011. The final Dingoes team was selected after ECC.
The selection process was arduous with form over the 2011 Club season taken into account. Following Nationals an extended squad of 35 players was picked to attend three weekend selection camps, and after that the Malaki team for ECC was the final chance for players to impress selectors.
The final Dingoes team includes the best Club players from all over Australia from locations including – Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, South Australia and Perth.
Mark: Because everyone lives in different areas of the country, selection has to be done through training camps, everyone flies for an intensive weekends of drills and game-play where the selectors can see how everyone plays together. The first selection camp was invite only for 60 men and women. This was then whittled down to 35 for the dingos squad. A couple camps were held with these 35 before a team of 25 was selected to play at ECC. You might think Australian training camps would be warm and sunny, possibly near the beach but that wouldn’t be further from the truth. They were held inland during the winter with temperatures reaching freezing lows, for Australia, of 4 degrees Celsius. Something worth noting is that the team at ECC had only trained together twice before; we beat Ring of Fire and only ever lost by a couple of points. This team, Malaki, was pushed on those players that weren’t certainties in the team already, in order to see them play in a high pressure environment. After this tournament a team consisting of players from every most cities around Australia was selected as the final team to go to Worlds 2012. I have nothing to compare it to but the process seemed pretty seamless, feedback was regular and helpful, especially for a younger developing player like myself.
What sort of preparation for Worlds have the Dingoes made and are continuing to make?
Jonno: The selection process and ECC in 2011 was a key part of our preparation for Worlds. The leadership group decided in the very early stages of planning that ECC would provide an excellent opportunity for Australian players to play against some of the strongest club teams in north America. Having limited opportunities to play against opposition of this level is one of the challenges that the Dingoes face in preparing for Worlds. While our final result was somewhat disappointing at ECC, the experience was invaluable for both rookie and veteran players on the team to play against strong US clubs, and we achieved the vast majority of the goals we set ourselves for the tournament.
Our preparation will take a step up this year, with players training with their club teams throughout the Nationals season and then coming together for more Dingoes training weekends throughout the year. As with previous campaigns a US pre-tour will occur in the weeks leading up to Worlds.
Tell us about team dynamics. What is this Aussie team all about? How would you be seen by the World community?
Mark: We’re a pretty friendly bunch of blokes. We get along well and I think this translates to good team work on the field. I think I’d like us to be seen by other teams as an athletic team not afraid to make big plays on offence and get physical on defence.
Jonno: Building a strong team culture for the Dingoes is one of the most important aspects of our preparation. Members of the NexGen team will understand some of the challenges of bringing together a group of talented athletes from different clubs and getting them to play together as a unified team. Many of the players selected on the Dingoes are leaders of strong club teams, so there can be disagreements or minor clashes over the direction of the team or strategy. Part of the process of developing the team culture is to enable players to have a voice when appropriate but also to recognise that as part of a team is that once a decision has been made, it is every players responsibility to perform at their best under that decision. Coaches Hemphill and Stephens have done a lot of work in the development of the team off the paddock and working with individuals to get the best out of them.The Dingoes have a proud tradition of representing Australia at World Championships. We look forward to extending our reputation of being able to match it with the top nations at Worlds and play fair, hard, competitive ultimate.
Tell us a bit about team philosophy and strategy. How are the Dingoes approaching competition at Worlds? How do the Dingoes plan to compete with the likes of Japan, the US and Britain?
Jonno: Did the Revolver boys put you up to this?? We are obviously not going to put out our game breaking secrets here for all to read! Basically there is nothing radically new about the strategy that the Dingoes will use. Our secret to success will be based on our preparation, hard work and most importantly in the belief we have for each other as teammates. We recognise that the top 4-5 teams at Worlds will all be quality opposition. Be it Japan, GB, the US or new and up and coming nations such as Colombia, we know that we will have to play at our peak to beat these kind of teams.
What’s one thing everyone should know about the Dingoes this year?
Mark: We will eat your babies. Nah not really…but we might take a nibble.
Jonno: Did you know that Mark’s nick-name is “The Nice Dragon”.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Jonno: Regarding the 2nd question, I never really could throw a hammer.